Forget the “all politics is local” bromides. Contests for the House of Representatives often turn on national themes. Just ask Newt Gingrich, who in 1994 used dissatisfaction with the Clinton Administration and the gimmick of a “Contract With America” to gain fifty-two Republican seats and take charge of the chamber. Since then, Democrats have steadily improved their position, so that this year they need win only six additional seats to retake the House. With a Republican in the White House and a sickly economy, 2002 should by most traditional political measures be a year of Democratic gains. Yet there are no guarantees that it will be; in fact, most analyses of competitive races in early October suggested that Republicans could hold their losses below the magic six-seat level, and few pundits ruled out the possibility of modest GOP gains. While Democrats held their own in redistricting battles to redraw House lines across the country, did a decent job of recruiting candidates and have not fallen too far behind in the competition for campaign money, so far they have failed to turn this election into a referendum on Republican rule. That’s a serious matter for the party–and, maybe, for the country. If Republicans retain control of the House and gain one Senate seat, as is possible, the Bush White House will be positioned to dominate federal policy-making for the next two years.
Despite the high stakes, polls suggest that most Americans have yet to engage in a serious way with this year’s House races. And they may never do so; just 36 percent of eligible voters participated in the last round of midterm Congressional elections. Disengagement suits House Republican leaders just fine. A low-turnout, unfocused election is their best bet to remain in control. But for House minority leader Dick Gephardt, this is likely to be his last chance to win the Speaker of the House position that has remained just beyond his grasp–and, perhaps, to position himself as a 2004 presidential contender.
Much of the fault for the absence of the issue focus and the energy that could put Democrats in position to regain control of the House can be laid at the door of Gephardt and his so-called strategists. They have been embarrassingly timid about questioning–let alone combating–the White House’s moves to shift the national debate away from issues of corporate crime and economic uncertainty that might benefit Democrats to national security issues that Bush political czar Karl Rove openly admits are critical to Republican prospects. By failing to challenge the Administration’s Iraq attack strategy, Gephardt handed Republicans the tool they used to divert the debate and divide Democrats–a majority of House Democratic Caucus members (including Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi) voted against the Iraq resolution that Gephardt backed. Gephardt’s assistance to the White House earned him no political points. But it certainly helped Bush, who was able to steer the debate away from the economy in the critical agenda-setting weeks after Labor Day. With three weeks left before the election, as Gephardt was still testing themes in Washington, Bush was waving the flag at rallies for GOP House candidates.
The failure of Democratic leaders to put their spin on the House fight has contributed to the patchwork-quilt character of competition where economic and national security issues resonate differently in different districts, where regional concerns take on greater significance and where personalities and strategic gambits are of exaggerated consequence. This doesn’t mean, however, that there are no insights to be gained from these battles; five very different contests across the country offer philosophical and strategic lessons for a party that is clearly having trouble finding its way.
When Democrats in Washington saw maps of voting patterns in the 2000 presidential election, they finally realized that the party had a serious problem in rural America. Vast stretches of the country between the West Coast and the Mississippi were painted red for Bush, with so many states registering so little support for the national Democratic ticket that Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe declared the party needed a “rural strategy.” In few states was the need more evident than South Dakota, where Gore won just 37 percent of the vote and carried only five of sixty-six counties. The DNC is still struggling to figure out how to talk to Americans who drive pickup trucks–generally bumbling toward ill-advised schemes to downplay support for gun control and abortion rights, issues that have helped the party make important inroads among suburban women. But in South Dakota, a 31-year-old rancher’s daughter has used a jagged brand of progressive populism to take charge of the debate over rural issues and to position herself as a contender in what was supposed to be an unwinnable Congressional race.